A model of efficiency

by Steve Krut
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Alvin Manger seems to have defied all the odds: He’s a meat processor; his business is located in a metropolitan area; his company is six generations old and still operating; and, he refers to himself as its custodian. As the man in charge of Manger Packing Corp., a meat shop located on a side street in West Baltimore, Md., Alvin is remarkable, both in accomplishments and in philosophy. When asked his title, Manger unhesitantly responds, “I’m really the custodian. It’s a business that was passed to me by my family and it is my duty to keep it profitable and pass it on to the next generations. A custodian is really the only true way to describe what I do.”

Family history

When his great-grandfather, George Manger, settled in Baltimore in the late 1860s, he brought the butchering skills he learned in Germany along with him. He set up a backyard butchering business behind his home and later passed on the business to his son, William.

“There were 10 butchers located in the neighborhood around that time and they all had the animals slaughtered at a municipally run plant called Baltimore Butcher’s Abattoir, located a few blocks away,” Alvin explains.

“It was the way things were in the 1800s,” he continues. “Everyone from the old country knew the taxes on property were based on lot frontage, so they all bought long narrow lots to keep their taxes low. There is a river [Gwynns Falls River] behind the plant where the livestock producers brought the animals from Western Maryland like the drovers of the Old West. They were watered there and then sold at that site to the various butchers. Then they were walked to the Abattoir or later to the individual meat plants that did their own slaughter.”

The neighborhood was named Butcher’s Lane and most of establishments were run by tradesmen who originated from Germany. Most of the butchers sold their products in the open markets in the early days of the city.

The river was also a source of ice in the winter for most of the shops, which had ice cellars where ice chunks were packed in sawdust to keep the meats cool into the spring months.

Investing in success

An outside look at the Manger plant doesn’t tell much to the passerby. But inside, the family has invested heavily in the latest equipment and, with only 22 employees, hits markets from New York to South Carolina.

“Some processors ask how we can afford to have such equipment,” he notes, “but I ask them how I can afford not to?”

Production for the wholesale trade drives the business and the plant churns out between 15,000 to 20,000 lbs. of its sausages weekly. Sausagemaking is accomplished from about 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday is devoted to packing and shipping that production. Friday is the major clean-up day.

The location of the plant has some built-in advantages. Alvin claims the city’s water supply is one of the nation’s best. He adds that the location is good logistically and that raw product availability in the area is outstanding. But being in the city also has a disadvantage because there is no room to grow. Alvin believes efficiency is what has sustained the company.

“I grew up around the meat business,” the 75-year-old Manger explains. “I later went to work for the Glen L. Martin Company for six years. They built aircraft and that’s where I really learned about production efficiency.”

Alvin says he was involved in sheet metal fabrication, mechanical contracting work and cost controls. When the company was contemplating layoffs and moving operations to Florida, Alvin’s father, Vernon, wanted him to come back into the meat business.

Back to business

“I guess that’s when I realized that while the family business was good, it was not being run with an eye toward being profitable,” he says. “We began to take better advantage of the facility that we had. We eliminated hog slaughter, remodeled the two plant buildings to keep all manufacturing on one side and everything else on the other. We built our own cold storage rooms and even built two smokehouses, one a two-truck and the other a three-truck unit.”

The laid-back Alvin is almost gleeful when conducting a tour of his operation. He points out how he used plastic and downspouts to eliminate condensation problems in key areas, and how redundancy in the cooling units in his cold storage rooms virtually eliminates loss of product or product quality.

Technical knowhow has helped the Manger family make its limited facilities more effi cient. But Alvin’s “knack” for innovative formulations has garnered the company national recognition, including mention in Parade Magazine’s ranking of “America’s Best 10 Meat Products.”

Manger’s is home to the “half smoke,” a lightly smoked pork and beef sausage that is served up in such regional establishments as Ben’s Chili Bowl, the Washington, DC eatery frequented by President Obama and guests he wants to impress. The link is often split length-wise and grilled before hitting the roll under a blanket of mustard, raw onions and even chili.

Another Manger favorite is the corned ham, an unsmoked product that is later stuffed and cooked by many organizations throughout St. Mary’s County, Md., for seasonal fundraisers and social events. It is to the Chesapeake Bay area what turducken is to Louisiana.

In recent years, the Manger firm has seen steady growth in its fresh and smoked sausage sales, but witnessed a veritable sausage business explosion when Alvin was asked by some retail customers and small distributors to make something for the growing Hispanic market.

“I had to do a lot of tinkering with the spices and formulations,” he relates, “but we finally hit on some recipes that became very popular. We have two small distributors who come to our plant regularly and pick up product to sell to the ethnic stores. They were very satisfi ed and then started to ask us for Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Honduran, and Colombian flavored sausages, in addition to our chorizo and Mexican style products.

“We tried some things and used only the best ingredients, pure 80-20 pork, real chiles and had those guys come back and say the customers loved our products,” he adds. “Some even said they were better than those made in their native countries.”

About 10 percent of the Manger business is retail-based, while the company also wholesales products from other processors in the region. The company once operated under city meat inspection and later Maryland state inspection before moving to USDA coverage when the state gave up its program.

Alvin’s wife Carole serves as the company billpayer; daughter Sharon is the office manager and handles the bookkeeping while son Jeffrey is in charge of sales and purchasing.

Grandson Jason, 27, is still learning the trade and comes without a title. Alvin confi des that his grandson “loves the business,” and may work his way up to earn the title of “custodian.”
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